Who is an Expert?

Last week, I talked about the pros, cons, and explosions of Mythbusters. A few thoughts have been percolating ever since, like why do most of the scientists in the public eye work with some form of physics (lookin’ at you, Neil deGrasse Tyson), and are there any women who qualify as renowned scientists and science communicators? Those are going to have to wait for a future post because first, I am still percolating those brain-nuggets and second, the few brain-nuggets I have aren’t particularly cheerful. Instead, this week let’s focus on one of the more positive thoughts that came out of my Mythbusters brain-busting: the expanding definition of an “expert.”

neil degrasse tyson
Your editors will always insert a gratuitous still shot of NDT, sexy BAMF.

For a long time, experts have been defined as people working and trained in a particular field. So an expert in botany was someone with a PhD in botany, and an expert in physics was someone with a PhD in physics. That’s fair, someone who spent years and years of their life studying physics should probably be considered an expert in that field; however, it is also incredibly limiting and dismissive of people who have not been trained in the narrow academic way.

The field of science communication is finally starting to wake up to the fact that there are many ways to become an expert without significant or any academic training. Some people pursue their interests, training themselves to be experts in botany or car engines or bicycling. Other people have lived experiences that make them experts, like a disabled person is an expert on what it is like to be a disabled person. Expanding the definition of expert makes our ability to engage in, communicate, and make relevant science more effectively. This expansion makes science less of a thing that happens in the strict confines of the ivory tower and more something that everyone interacts with everyday.  Instead of experts talking to the masses, the public is seen as made up of scientists of all stripes who can communicate with each other.

This movement is seen with particular clarity in blogs. Anyone with access to a computer and the Internet can start a blog. Getting readership is more difficult, but creating that personalized web space that focuses on the creator’s passion is pretty easy and it means that now more than ever, people can actively engage in science and science communication. Now, with the expanding definition of expert, it is important to clearly and honestly state what someone’s credentials are, but saying “20 years of plant collection and identification experience” should hold just as much weight (if not more, in some cases) as someone who says “PhD in plant systematics.”

That’s what I love about these science reality TV shows and about all these fun science blogs written by everyone from traditional scientists to self-taught scientists to incidental scientists to people who just think science is fun. There are many ways to be an expert and each of them should be recognized and given weight in the discussion of what science is doing and what it should do in the future. As an exclusive club, science sort of sucks, but as a free-wheeling conversation between everyone about the joys of exploration, well, that’s pretty darn cool.

4 replies on “Who is an Expert?”

I don’t know if this an exception for the field of medicine, but communication between the learned experts of medicine and the lay person frequently bother me. I am fascinated by the workings of the human body and read about it extensively. And when I need medical care I do my homework and research things for myself (and not Yahoo Answers, but journal articles and studies and such). While I would never consider myself an expert, I do consider myself to be more knowledgeable than the average lay woman. So it is very aggravating to me when medical professionals don’t treat my questions as valid, or worse – give me “baby talk” answers that do not educate. I guess it comes down to the feeling I get that some people with extensive schooling or training believe that anyone without a PhD or MD couldn’t possible grasp the concept being discussed because we lack sufficient schooling.

I completely agree. As a patient (or patient’s advocate), you deserve appropriate answers to your questions or concerns. End of discussion.

Story time… Both my husband and I have PhDs, which really is relevant for this antecdote. (…meaning, I don’t bring this up in casual conversation because it really doesn’t matter….) Husband’s mom was dealing with end-stage cancer complications, and she was in a hospital in the city where her vacation home was. Thus, husband’s dad wasn’t dealing with their usual medical peeps. The doctors were being completely dismissive of husband’s dad’s questions, as well as husband’s questions, until husband asked something very, very detailed. Then medical doctor asked husband: “Are you a doctor?”, to which my husband replied “Yes.” The dynamic changed completely after that, and we all stopped getting the run around. Why should it even have mattered what degree my husband or my father-in-law has? It doesn’t! Still makes me angry, even though it happened over 6 years ago.

TL;DR. Short form: Patients deserve respect.

I feel like the natural sciences are more set up for this since there is a long tradition of lay-scientists. In social sciences, English and philosophy, there is a lot of this idea that you can only think about those issues from within the ivory tower. I feel like in science if you hobby is to collect butterflies and study them, you can be considered an expert in them, while if your hobby is to read Nietzche and study his life, you’re never really considered an expert with anything valid to say. Not that it couldn’t happen, but I think it’s much less likely to find a cross between lay and expert in the social sciences.

Good topic for discussion, AA! I might soon be an “expert” in Modernist American poetry, but it’s totally possible that a person without the degrees I (will) have will be MORE of an expert on a particular poem or poet than I will be. It’s good to remember to respect different people’s knowledge and expertise even when it comes from a different source than our own.

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